Thursday, January 21, 2010

An author's temple is her library

As an author and editor, with a day job, a big gripe I have is that I no longer have much, if any, time for reading. Oh, I read all right. I read submissions, I proofread, I study... but for pleasure? Nah. If I'm lucky, I snatch an hour or so on the train every day, when I'm not writing or chatting with friends. Sometimes I'm lucky and get to read for a whole hour on a weekend when my husband decides to hog the computer. That's if we're not rushing about madly after his photo- or film-shoots.

If 2009 was anything to go by, it's set the tone for 2010. I need to find balance. Sure, I love what I do and this year I'll be trying to work even harder than the last, but I need to be able to indulge in the activity that got me into this predicament in the first place: my love of books.

It all started when I was a wee lass of about five or so. My mom used to teach at a primary school in the seaside village of Hout Bay. My pre-school was across the way from her place of work, and every afternoon I'd sit patiently in her classes (she taught the Grade 6s) and wait for her to finish so we could go home.

(This is possibly also another reason why I could read and write better than most brats my age, thanks Mum!)

Sitting in a classroom watching my mum teach soon lost its appeal. A few other teachers had younglings my age and we sometimes ranged about the school for hours on end, catching all sorts of mischief, but they weren't always there, so I had to find some other sort of entertainment.

That's when I discovered the library. The Thomas Library (as it was called then) was in the same block as my pre-school. I'm not quite sure how I discovered it, but when I did, I pestered my mum to let me spend the afternoons there helping the librarian pack away books.

Even though my reading wasn't all that great, I loved paging through the books, trying to string together words and examining the illustrations or photographs. I spent almost every afternoon in the library, a habit that continued well into my teens, although not with as much frequency, since I'd started checking out books instead.

The saddest development over the past few years since I've started writing and editing professionally, is that I'd stopped going to the library. Besides, even if I did check out books, I never had time to read them anyway. With so many books at home sitting on my "to read" pile, it didn't make sense to still use the library.

What I didn't realise is that I'd been missing out on what can possibly described as one of the most spiritual aspects of being a wordsmith. The library was my temple, and I was so far off the path I didn't realise my absolute thirst for knowledge and inspiration.

I work in Cape Town's CBD, and for many years the central library was hosted within the labyrinthine City Hall, with several floors and a series of pokey, stuffy rooms choked with shelves. Although fun to visit, I was rarely stayed long to browse mainly because the building made me feel claustrophibic.

Imagine my delight when I decided to visit the newly revamped central library, which has now moved to a historical building next to the City Hall.

This story pretty much sums up the feeling of intense ecstasy flowing through my veins:

Of course, I told myself, I had to be realistic. With my current times being overburdened with other activities, there was no way I could check out books and read them. But a part of me just itched to spend time in that hallowed hall, breathing in the atmosphere and basking in my reverence of the written word.

Then something struck me. Nothing was stopping me from making a special "me" day, once a week, to spend my lunch hour in the library. Now, every Wednesday, I trot down the road to the library. Acting on personal whim, I wander between the shelves, picking books at random. Sometimes I read the preface... or the first chapter... Maybe next week I'll pick up the book again or find something different.

The most important aspect of this act is to take me away from the hundreds of distractions and say, "Hey, you, author, how about broadening your horizons a bit?"

During an hour I look at four or five books in this fashion, and am exposed to new ideas. As a writer, this is a real act of discovery, and often I walk away turning over the bones of yet another plot to stir and thicken... and who knows, may just prove to be my next novel.


  1. Yes, libraries are fantastic! You can also rent out movies for free and they give you two days to watch them. Fab! I remember asking Gavin if he liked libraries while we were dating and he said, 'Yes! I could spend the whole day in the library.' I knew I had met my match then :)

  2. Nerine, there's a difference between "historic" and "historical"!